Easter Sunday. Mass has just ended in the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation (Sayidat Al-Najat), in central Baghdad. In just a few minutes the benches are emptied, while the last notes of song are lost in the nave. Just a month ago, Pope Francis delivered from this same altar a speech of hope and unity, exhorting the Christians of Iraq to forgiveness and resilience. A particularly symbolic message in this cathedral where on October 31, 2010, terrorists had killed 48 people and injured hundreds of others.
The attack had triggered the departure abroad of hundreds of faithful, contributing to an exodus which, since 2003, has emptied the Christian community of Iraq of nearly 90% of its members.
“No law or security, how can a pope change that? “
“Families mingle in the warm, dazzling spring sun. They exchange wishes and smiles here and there, but the atmosphere is anything but jubilant. Pope Francis’ visit last month was an immense joy, and we all really hoped that it could make a difference here in Iraq ”, launches doctor Mumtaz Al Naser, 65 years old.
“There is no security and no law in this country. Everyone thinks about their own interests. How can a pope solve this? “, echoes Thana, also a surgeon. His melancholy gaze sweeps across the church square. “Do you see all these families? They are the poorest, who do not have the money to go abroad ”.
→ EXPLANATION. How many Christians are left in Iraq?
Faithful to Sayidat Al-Najat for more than 40 years, Doctor Al Naser now goes there alone. “My four children and my wife, also doctors, are all abroad. They live between the United States and Jordan. From time to time they come to see me, but only if it is passing through to go elsewhere. We must not kid ourselves: the young people here are just passing through ”.
The 60-year-old is in despair: “The future is bleak in Iraq”. Ravaged by decades of wars, the country is now in the midst of an economic crisis, dominated by pro-Iranian armed militias and facing many security and political challenges.
“None of the Christian families who left will ever return to Iraq”
“There is no security and no jobs. And anyway, how can we work under conditions of permanent threat? “, summarizes Dr. Al Naser, now retired. “None of the Christian families who left will ever return to Iraq”, categorically slice his colleague Thana.
“We remain hopeful, but this country has been broken since 2003”, nods Paolis Zarra. With his liturgical clothes folded in his arms, the young 35-year-old priest, at Notre-Dame du Salut for seven years, also puts into perspective the effect of a pope’s first visit to Iraq. “It was an important symbol, a strong message of peace and an encouragement to stay. But the Pope would have to come back a second time, in order to be able to take the time to meet ordinary citizens, and not just priests, bishops and religious representatives ”, he sighs.
Before leaving Iraq, the faithful come to see Fr. Zarra to collect their baptismal certificate. He therefore has a very clear picture of the situation and does not have any illusions. “In our role as religious, we do what we can to give them hope, but leaving remains an individual choice”, he explains.
“Since the Pope’s visit a month ago, I have not received any families who were leaving. But last year I said goodbye so many times ”, warns the young priest. “It is only a matter of time before the exodus resumes.”